'The Messenger: The Story

Friday November 12, 1999

     Who was responsible for Joan of Arc? Who put those wild and crazy ideas in the impressionable head of the future saint and savior of France? "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" has a few suggestions.
     Perhaps it was that kindly 15th century country priest, the one who told a God-fearing little girl to listen to her voices. Or maybe it was yet another priest, responding to the girl's survival guilt after witnessing a brutal massacre with a reassuring "the Lord always has a good reason. Perhaps he needs you for a higher calling." Perhaps indeed.
     The story of Joan--the illiterate teenage peasant girl who changed the course of history by inspiring France's liberation from the British and was eventually canonized by the same church that helped burn her at the stake--is as inherently dramatic a yarn as anyone could want, and between a 1916 Cecil B. DeMille silent and the recent Leelee Sobieski-starring TV miniseries, numerous attempts, including versions starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg and Maria Falconetti, have made it to the screen.
     "The Messenger," starring Milla Jovovich and directed by Luc Besson from a script he co-wrote with Andrew Birkin, is one of the more curious Joan interpretations, wildly ambitious but only intermittently successful. Old-fashioned enough to open with a map of Europe slowly overflowing with blood, it blends great cinematic energy with an awkwardly mixed multinational cast and aggressively over-modernized dialogue. When you throw in Dustin Hoffman as, of all things, Joan's conscience, you know you are in for some heavy weather.
     Demurely subtitled "The Story of Joan of Arc," "The Messenger" opens with our girl as a happy child of 8, a baby zealot who goes to confession three times a day and would be happy to spend her entire life inside a church.
     Joan's personality gets understandably less sunny when she (and, regrettably, we as well) witnesses the extremely violent and graphic rape of her sister by British troops who have terrible teeth and swinish eating habits in the bargain.
     A few years pass and the scene shifts to the royal court, where the uncertain Dauphin, France's uncrowned king (John Malkovich), has heard news of a young girl who wants to see him and claims to be a messenger from God. He's reluctant, but his mother, Yolande of Aragon (Faye Dunaway, costumed like an elaborate Continental queen bee), thinks he should because the little people are on Joan's side: "Suddenly," she thuddingly theorizes, "there's a spark of hope in their simple minds."
     Joan in the flesh so convinces the Dauphin of her sincerity and belief that he allows her to go to Orleans to help his army lift the British siege of the city. And, at least in these early stages, Jovovich convinces us as well.
     Best known for her role opposite Bruce Willis in Besson's previous "The Fifth Element," Jovovich's very physical Joan-as-Tank Girl take on the future saint is a persuasive one. An actress of great force more than skill, she brings energy, nerve (she did many of her own stunts, including a daunting backward fall from a ladder) and combativeness to the enterprise, adding an essential level of conviction to lines like "I don't think, I leave that to God" and "I am calm; it is God that is angry." When she powerfully screams, "Follow me, I will give you victory," she would be difficult for anyone to resist.
     Besson, whose pre-"Fifth Element" films include "La Femme Nikita," "The Big Blue," "Subway" and "Le Dernier Combat," is a potent visual director who brings a fine sense of epic, wide-screen movie-making to the proceedings. The Thierry Arbogast-photographed battles around Orleans, with heaving, roiling masses of humanity engaged in truly savage combat at close quarters, are Besson (who donned a costume to get close to the action and shoot hand-held battle footage himself) at his brutal but beautiful best.
     But after Joan wins enough victories to allow the Dauphin to be crowned Charles VII at Rheims, the battles largely cease and "The Messenger" gets as confused as Joan, who starts to notice all the carnage she's caused and wonders if this could really be the Lord's plan.
     It's also at about this point that "The Messenger's" willfully pedestrian dialogue (co-writer Birkin also scripted Richard Gere's clunky "King David") becomes more noticeable. "To hell with your voices," someone says to Joan, "it's time to face facts," and Malkovich's Dauphin whines at his coronation like a pouty starlet, "That's meant to be a crown? Can't you get something more regal?" Mixing native and nonnative English speakers does not help this situation, and neither does Besson's congenital aversion to subtlety.
     Things enter a whole other level of strangeness when Joan is captured by the British and has to contend not only with beatings and hostile clergymen of the most obtuse kind but also with Hoffman, cowled like a monk. Personifying Joan's doubts is an acceptable idea, but Jovovich is too broad an acting instrument and Hoffman is too much a time traveler from a different century to make it credible. Nothing less than a miracle saved France, "The Messenger" tells us, and nothing less than a miracle would be needed to rescue this film from itself.


'The Messenger: The Story, 1999. R, for strong graphic battles, a rape and language. of Joan of Arc'

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